Thursday, 11 August 2011

Police and thieves in the streets

Police and thieves in the streets, so goes the lyrics of the Clash song!  In many ways 2011 seems like a re-run of 1981 to me.  Royal wedding, mass unemployment and riots in English inner cities.  Or is it?

I read an excellent blog earlier this week from Dave Hill in the Guardian.  He pointed out that the riots produced a predictable polarisation of views.  The right condemn criminality, give uncritical support to the police and show a contempt for diagnosing the events in reference to any wider social and economic context.

The left give an insistence that the events must be understood with reference to a social and economic context, whisper darkly about historic tensions with the Met and draw causal links with current government policies such as public sector cuts and the removal of the EMA (Education Maintenance Allowance).

What struck me was how these riots, although sparked by tensions in Tottenham over a young man shot by police in controversial circumstances, became a semi orchestrated series of looting sprees and serious outbreaks of civil disorder.  At the root was organised theft of training shoes, HD TVs, Mac Books and Jewellery. 

There seems little causal link with government policies or a general malaise in society.

This is different from 1981 where general alienation caused a wave of serious mass riots in a series of English cities.

While there seems to be a whole matrix of reasons driving this disorder what really seems to be driving it is gang culture and hatred of the police.  If we are to listen to the interviews with the rioters, or read their texts, or even their tweets it is all about getting 'dem feds' and comes with some real vitriol.  I also read about gangs in London in particular making schools tough places to maintain any authority, or leaving social workers in fear or even policemen.

The point is this issue has been there for a long time through this government and the last, through global economic meltdown and through boom time.  The links of causation as a protest against the government just aren't there.

Interestingly Diane Abbot seemed to think relations with the police while imperfect had improved in recent years.  Nevertheless, gang culture and kicking out at authority, the police in particular, seem sensible choices for some of the causes of the chaos.  I'm sure alienation, including economic alienation is part of this and there is plenty of evidence that civil disorder increases in periods of austerity.

Its just that there hasn't been enough time for things this government is doing to work through the system to a large degree.  This is a breakdown which has been there for some time.

The polarised name calling helps no one.  The predictable trotting out of second rate socialist theory is self righteous and boring and was lined up before anything happened.  We need a little time to stand back and understand the reasons for all of this in each city.

A lot of the solutions will come from the street workers and outreach teams getting their hands dirty with the people involved.

Then Tony Blair's catch phrase actually isn't that far off what we need to do - be 'tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime'

But lets not fool ourselves, a lot of what happened this week was a load of scallies getting free stuff!

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